Directed and choreographed by Mitchell Greco, Murder for Two is a fast-paced romp through the life of Marcus (Trace Pool), a police officer who really wants to be higher on the totem pole as a full-out detective. He has had his issues with his personal and professional lives intertwining a little too much, at least considering his former partner/love interest might have had some criminal history herself—but I don’t want to give too much away! After all, this is a murder mystery, and the fun of this show is trying to figure out the culprit. In this case, too much information may be too much information.
What first struck me is the sheer ambition of this show. As director Greco succinctly states, it is “Two actors playing 13 parts while singing, dancing, acting and playing piano (often at the same time), all wrapped around a tight mystery.” That sure is a lot of plates spinning in the air.
The murder victim is Arthur Whitney, a novelist who has featured many of the suspects in his books—not always in a flattering light. So while Marcus is sleuthing, the heaviest lifting of the show falls to Ben Miller, who plays all of the suspects—including a French ballerina, the sassy wife of Arthur, and a psycho psychiatrist. It is something to behold.
On one hand, a new level of suspense is infused into the rather predictable elements of a staged whodunit (think Agatha Christie’s Black Coffee). That suspense is built around the question of “who’s there?” as the audience watches Miller change from one character to another, often within a single whirl, and he doesn’t even have the advantage of much in the way of costume changes to make his transformations legible. Miller must adopt the mannerisms and accents of multiple characters often within seconds of each other, and the audience clearly seemed to enjoy watching him juggle these roles alongside the formidable demands of this show’s physical comedy.
All of these characters are over the top, but I suppose they have to be, as parody and satire require exaggeration in order to make their targets and revelations of absurdity patently clear. Some people love the three-ring circus feel of such shows; for others, it might feel like the punchline of a joke is repeated a bit too often. I confess that about halfway through the show I was thinking that I would love to see both these actors in something more serious. The whole thing has a lot of madcap antics and slapstick moments, and either you like that kind of thing, or you don’t.
Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and there was a moment of audience participation that was one of my favorites of the entire musical. And the faux-seriousness of the cozy mystery drama is ripped to shreds, and maybe rightly so. The setting is “an isolated mansion in rural New England, present day,” but the Victorian décor makes it feel like it is at least decades, if not a century away. Macy Lyne’s costumes also seem dated, but I can see how they do evoke a certain feeling for the settings and attire of better-known whodunits. I am not sure if it matters that much, but it would have been interesting to see this dramatized in the 21st century. But maybe that is one of the points of this show. If video killed the radio star, then maybe our slew of high-tech television mysteries has made the country-house cozy obsolete?
One of the stars of this show is the piano that dominates the stage. Both Miller and Pool are wonderful and accomplished pianists, and I marveled at how they were able to infuse their formidable musical theater skills so seamlessly into this send-up of the mystery genre. I loved hearing them play and their use of music for such effective comic effect. Some of the lines in this show are groan-worthy, but some of this I think is intentional. Yet the music and the creative way Steven Jones incorporates the book, music, and lyrics of Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair into this show was interesting and original, even if the book is not my favorite story in the world.
This show is fun, but I left thinking how much work it took for these two actors to pull off such demanding roles not only theatrically, but physically and musically as well. How they did it is a mystery, and I look forward to seeing what roles they inhabit next.
Thru June 16. Tickets from $25. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy. 713-527-0123. More info and tickets at stagestheatre.com.